Walter Van Beirendonck is in the business of pushing boundaries. The avant-garde designer and head of fashion at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts creates fashion fairytales that bubble up to the surface in a holographic wave of crocodile fetishes, candy-raver colours and polymorphous menswear.

First staged at Antwerp’s MoMu (Mode Museum) in 2011, the fact that Dream the World Awake has successfully made the transition to the other side of the globe is due in no small part to the philanthropic efforts of Naomi Milgrom, who owns a fashion empire that counts Sportsgirl in its crown.

Presented over two levels in a way that maximises the potential of the impressive Design Hub building, the exhibition features three decades of Van Beirendonck’s storied collections. Rotating mannequins bring the exuberant creativity of over 70 ensembles to life, alongside videos and photography by collaborators such as SHOWstudio’s Nick Knight from Britain.

The eight-metre Wonder Wall presides over the rear of the gallery, inviting viewers to dive into a space between the marvellous and the mundane. The wall’s interplay of text and imagery from pop culture and ethnographic sources echo the graphic appeal and unconventional themes of Van Beirendonck’s fashion designs: AIDS, ecology, tribal rituals, capitalism and alternative modes of beauty.

“The whole Wonder Wall is inspired by my workbooks,” Van Beirendonck explains, opening up a scrapbook filled with fragments of text and images. He points at a photo of a black male athlete in high heels sourced from a mid-90s Pirelli tyre ad. Olympic track legend Carl Lewis crouches on all fours at the starting line, his rippling flesh extending to a pair of gleaming red stilettos on his feet. “This kind of image inspired me to put a man in high heels and still keep it very masculine.”

The tension between gender norms and societal expectations arises frequently in Van Beirendonck’s work. Exploring bodily images we are not accustomed to seeing in a fashion realm, he has expanded his canvas from the sartorial to the corporeal, populating the runway with outré gay bears and models with prosthetic horns.

His fascination with recurring motifs such as masks can be traced largely to books and his immersion in gallery culture. He recalls a “very good” teacher at the Antwerp Royal Arts Academy who opened his eyes to ethnic art, taking the class on field trips to museums in Berlin and Amsterdam.

After Van Beirendonck graduated in 1980, he became known as one of the ‘Antwerp Six’, a group of Belgian fashion designers from the Academy who were lauded by the London fashion world for their radical aesthetic. The evolution of his career, from darkly subversive political slogans to the quieter, more intimate reveries of recent collections, reflects the changing zeitgeist of fashion globally.

His intrigue with rituals and fetishism continually focuses on shifting boundaries, such as in Hardbeat (1989), where he reconfigured elements of S&M through knitwear. Throughout the 90s, Van Beirendonck’s shows at Paris Fashion Week for his Wild and Lethal Trash label were as much political protest (or at least social commentary) as they were sartorial statements, twisting archetypes and challenging the status quo. Experiments with technological progress in fabrications led to forays into sportswear and safety wear.

The collection Killer/ Astral Travel/ 4D-Hi-D (1996) draws on the work of artists Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley’s retelling of the Heidi story. Influenced by Puritanism and American horror films, it likens the significance of the HIV crisis to the towering stature of the Swiss Alps.

“Ten years ago I would have said my fashion is more about going out, showing off and creating statements. When I’m designing now I’m designing more for that moment of happiness a piece can give you,” Van Beirendonck says.

He cites Home Sweet Home as the best example of this, his most recent collection, which blooms with trompe l’oeil flowers, dinner jackets inspired by couch upholstery and colour-blocked pastel suits, styled with dandyish phallic footwear. “It’s purely inspired by my home and the place I’m living,” he says of his house outside Antwerp. “The wallpaper I have, the carpets which line it. The collection is literally inspired by my home, which is the closest thing to myself.”

Dream the World Awake gives a strong sense of the man behind the fashion: his gentle humility, irreverent sense of humour, as well as his need to challenge expectations and operate as a free agent. “I choose to work with a certain type of freedom for myself and that’s what I cherish after all these years. I’m living fashion – what you see here is me.”

Dream the World Awake shows at RMIT Design Hub, 150 Victoria Street, Carlton, from July 17 to October 5, 2013. The opening week of the exhibition kicks off with a program of free events including talks by London’s Tate Modern director Chris Dercon and Antwerp’s MoMu director Kaat Debo.

designhub.rmit.edu.au